MU engineering students launch air balloon for second year

Saturday, May 5, 2012 | 5:31 p.m. CDT; updated 11:20 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, May 8, 2012
MU engineering students release a weather balloon on the Missouri practice football field Saturday. They connected a camera to the balloon and will use the images to study the curve of the earth.

COLUMBIA — What appeared to be a crude silver tent was being pitched on Missouri's football training field around 7 a.m. Saturday. A group of MU students huddled beneath it, some kneeling inside to fill up a giant white balloon. Others propped it up with two-by-fours.

For a residence hall project last year, the students launched a specially designed air balloon and collected high-altitude images from an attached camera.

This year, they’re back to do a repeat air balloon launch with some extra touches and innovative improvements.

The team of sophomores — mostly engineering majors — includes Andrew Kitson, Pedro Ruiz Fabian, Mark Hansen, Logan Forsythe, Andrew Perry, Tim Hezel and Andy Pelikan.

The huge silver tarp is a critical part of the launch’s success since it covers the balloon like a protective tent. The idea is to contain the balloon so it doesn’t stretch out or lose control while being filled with about 70 cubic feet of helium. The team brought two tanks of helium, just in case, and a spare balloon.

They encountered some problems in the maiden launch last year — the balloon popped. This year, they downsized the diameter of the balloon from 10 feet to six feet, and they used a larger containment tarp.  

But the young team of engineers embraces glitches and problems and relishes in their improvement. Everyone's a problem solver. 

Saturday, the first problem of the day was minor: the camera memory card was full. Someone quickly stepped up to fix it.

“This year they’re more autonomous, which is good,” said Richard Whelove, a professor at MU and the team's consultant. “This is kind of an evolution from last year.”

The balloon

This year, the group used a $50 Kenmore balloon and expected it to reach higher altitudes than last year.

Whelove wasn't sure exactly how high last year's balloon went. 

Attached to the balloon was a small Styrofoam box that contained a cell phone for GPS tracking, an altimeter to measure altitude, a Canon camera and a video camera. Small holes in the sides of the box let the camera lenses peek through, and the entire package was strapped together and taped securely.

Kitson programmed the Canon camera to snap a picture every 3 seconds — an upgrade from every 15 seconds last year. The video camera is a new addition.

The group added more "bells and whistles" this year to test their skills, and they've been successful since the balloon is much more manageable, said Laura Denlinger, Gillett Hall coordinator. Denlinger helped the group with funding from the Gillett Funding Committee. The launch project cost about $600, with electronic equipment being the priciest.

The launch

Saturday morning, with the tarp finally removed, the team members who had been holding the two-by-fours for more than 45 minutes finally got to stretch their arms. The hard work was about to pay off.

“Engineering students are very ambitious. Who else would be out here at 7 in the morning?” Whelove said.

A little after 8:30 a.m., three of the team members slowly started letting go of the rope connected to the balloon. Once it was let go, the balloon shot off rapidly toward the sky. Right away, the small yellow parachute deployed and dragged on the balloon slightly. But the team was unaffected  — the same thing happened in last year’s successful launch.

The team, along with a group of about 10 fans, scanned the skies until the balloon was a tiny speck.

The balloon was designed to burst at a certain altitude. After the burst, a parachute attached the the Styrofoam box would float the cargo down to the ground, where the students would anticipate its arrival based on GPS coordinates.

Once the balloon was out of sight, Kitson looked straight to his phone to track the GPS signal from a website.

Three hours and 15 minutes after the launch, the balloon burst, sending the parachute downward. Although the package landed around noon, it took the team about three hours to find it,  even with the GPS signal, Kitson said. 

It landed in a cornfield near Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area, close to McBaine. 

Kitson said that according to the group's measurements, the balloon reached an altitude of about 74,900 feet. 

“It went better than last year," team member Hezel said. “I could see us doing it next year, if we get the funding.”

They talked about how if they do it again, they'll work on fixing the premature parachute deployment. 

“It’s a team effort,” Kitson said. “We all have so much fun with it.”

Supervising editor is Kellie Kotraba.

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Cecil Caulkins May 6, 2012 | 6:01 a.m.

I'm puzzled: The headline and the story refer to an "air balloon," yet the balloon was filled with helium. Why call it an air balloon? Of course, it rose through the air. That's what balloons do. And they don't rise if they are filled with air; that's where the helium comes in. "Air balloon" is sort of like "hot water heater."

(Report Comment)
robert link May 6, 2012 | 7:51 a.m.

"Kitson said that according to the group's measurements, the balloon reached an altitude of about 74,900 feet."

I sincerely doubt this. 74,000 feet is the altitude that is considered "near space" and a balloon launched in Boone County would not achieve that height and land in Boone County.

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith May 6, 2012 | 10:48 a.m.

Not certain what to say about 74,900 feet, although I'm inclined to agree with Robert Link. "Air balloon" appears to simply be a poor choice of words by the reporter and editor.

What I definitely agree with is that engineering students, regardless of their UM System campus, are dedicated! You can come to our campus at 1 AM and even 2 AM on Saturday and Sunday mornings and see student teams working on solar-powered cars, formula SAE racing cars (powered by modified Honda lawnmower engines), Baja (off road) racing cars, guided aircraft, small steel bridges, etc., up to 20 different projects, including a solar-powered home. On the other hand, what else is there to do, that's legal and moral, in Rolla, Missouri on Friday and Saturday nights? :)

Those projects are NOT financed with Missouri taxpayer's money, nor should they be. They are privately financed by alumni and businesses.

(Report Comment)
Tim Dance May 6, 2012 | 1:30 p.m.

"I sincerely doubt this. 74,000 feet is the altitude that is considered "near space" and a balloon launched in Boone County would not achieve that height and land in Boone County."

I don't doubt it a bit. The link below tells of a boy and his father in NY sending a balloon 100,000 ft and it landing only 30 miles north of the launch site.

(Report Comment)

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